Justin Smoak, low risk high reward


Mar 19, 2014; Peoria, AZ, USA; Seattle Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak (17) hits an RBI double in the third inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Peoria Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

On October 28th the Blue Jays took a gamble on Justin Smoak. Then a couple days later he was bought out of his contract for $150 000. The Blue Jays still hold his rights and have most likely tabled a new contract to his agent. The fact that a month has gone by without a new contract being inked means the two sides obviously don’t have the same numbers in mind. I feel like a 2 or 3 year deal worth 1.5-2 million a year seems right. Then again, I am neither an MLB GM nor arbitrator, so what do I know. The December 2nd non-tender deadline is fast approaching and we will soon have an answer on Justin’s value.

First, a little back story on Justin Smoak and how he became a Blue Jay. He is a post hype prospect that never really panned out after being drafted 11th overall in 2008 by the Texas Rangers.  In 2009, Justin soared through the minor league system going from rookie ball to AAA in a single season. After crushing rookie ball pitchers for 2 games he was quickly promoted to AA. After playing half of a season he was promoted to AAA and had a combined split of .290/.410/.443. That is when the hype train was in full force. Baseball America had Justin ranked as the 13th top prospect in MLB. In 2010 Justin was crushing AAA with a .300/.470/.540 split before getting a call to the big leagues. While he didn’t perform overly well after getting the call he was still deemed a valuable prospect. Prior to the 2010 trade deadline the Texas Rangers traded for Cliff Lee and sent a package of prospects over to the Seattle Mariners. Justin Smoak was the gem in that trade.

Fast forward to 2014 and Justin Smoak still hasn’t established himself as the middle of the lineup 1b that the Mariners had envisioned. He was optioned down to AAA where he spent half the season. His numbers again in AAA look good with a .337/.422/.502 slash. This was still not good enough for the Mariners as they put him on waivers where the Blue Jays decided to take the gamble with him.

The news on Justin Smoak is not all grim. The man can field the bases fairly well. He won’t cost the team many runs playing defense. Last year he had a FLD% of .997 and a Total Zone Fielding Runs Above Average of 1.  While he isn’t as good as Lyle Overbay was for the Blue Jays, much like Overbay, Justin Smoak is a southpaw.

Being a southpaw does have its advantages playing 1b. A majority of batted balls will be to the left side of where he stands on the field. This makes plays much easier for lefties to make. The best advantage comes in holding runners and pick off plays. Southpaws do not need to swipe to the base runner and can simply catch the ball and apply a tag in a single motion.

Unfortunately for Justin Smoak his success hitting in the minors has never translated into the majors. He holds a career line of .224/.309/.380 and BB:K ratio of 0.48. Those are not very good numbers. It isn’t all bad though. Justin is a switch hitter that does have some power. He has hit 20 HR and 19 HR in the last 3 seasons. Last year he spiked his line drive rate to 27%. He can make solid contact with the ball when he isn’t striking out. Moving away from one of the most pitcher friendly parks (Safeco Field) in MLB should also help his numbers at the plate. I would not be surprised if he was able to pull out another 20 HR campaign and contribute to the Blue Jays already potent lineup.

There is no denying that Brook Jacoby the new hitting coach is going to have his work cut out for him. I am hoping that a fresh start is all Justin Smoak needs to bump being labelled a career AAAA player.